Kathryn Savage is a writer based in Minneapolis whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Ecotone Magazine, the Virginia Quarterly Review, BOMB, and the anthology Rewilding: Poems for the Environment. She recently chatted with EcoLit Books about her essay Groundglass and the intersections of pollution and human health. You can read the EcoLit Books review of Groundglass here.
Q: What is a Superfund site, and what is your relationship to them?
A: A Superfund site is a polluted place. My debut, Groundglass, explores the social, environmental, physical, and socioeconomic relationship between Superfund sites and the communities living near them.
The Superfund was started in 1980. It is a U.S. trust fund set up by Congress, intended to address the cleanup of toxic places when the polluter has moved out or gone bankrupt. It was a response to Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, where adverse health effects were experienced by the local community because of contaminants harming them. Love Canal was built on top of a landfill and was a huge environmental disaster in the 1970s. Superfund sites are usually places where extractive industries once economically thrived. It has been shown, through research, that to live within a few miles of a Superfund can cause adverse health effects.
I also write about brownfields, which are industrial sites that are often actively in use. I grew up in what’s called a fenceline community—an area that borders industry. I was living beside an active brownfield around the same time that my father was dying from a cancer that occurs at a slightly higher rate in areas with sustained environmental contamination. I had grown up near a brownfield. I got curious about what the realities of this lifelong proximity were for me, personally, but also socially and culturally. Questions that I started to ask were: Who lives on the fence? Is that nearness posing adverse health effects to human, plant, and animal life there?
Q: When did you become aware of the issues that you write about in the book?
A: I was always aware experientially. I was more aware through the senses than I was intellectually until my dad was sick. I was re-reading what my friend and neighbor Gudrun Lock (who I interview in Groundglass), says about this idea that when you live near industry, you sense it. You smell it, you hear it. I live quite close to a place now—and as a child I did too—where you can smell diesel smoke, or there’s a lot of light pollution, or there are shipping containers being transported 24/7. Through sound, through smell, through sight, living in proximity to industrial toxins was always something I was aware of. I think of how many of us experience coming home and being stopped at a red light for a long time because there are oil tankers moving across the road, you know—just these more casual experiences of place where we know we exist in late capitalism and here are the trains moving the goods.
When I started to research and talk to folks who lived near other Superfunds and brownfields, something that I noticed was this shared sensory relationship with place. People talked about the quality of the air or even the way the sky would change. That kind of sensory relationship was an awareness I had without having an intellectual understanding of it, or of the potential health risks. I was naïve; I didn’t think there was any specific harm being done to me because of this spatial proximity. That was only something that I started to suspect after my dad’s cancer diagnosis, which is maybe only interesting because of what it reveals about the larger biomedical culture, too. For example, I was diagnosed with asthma when I was twelve, a couple of years after we moved next to a tar shingles factory that wasn’t following air pollution regulations, and a rail switching yard, and I would have pretty intense headaches as a young kid, but this was never broached as: “Is there any environmental causation here?” And maybe there isn’t. But the erasure of the possibility, the foreclosing of the questions about the potential links between environmental degradation and health, this started to trouble me.
Q: Have you noticed there is sometimes a working-class pride in living near industrial sites, and a defensive attitude of “I’m not a victim of anything”?
A: I do think that to suspect, or know, that one’s home or income source is a likely cause of illness and disease can lead to profound discomfort and cognitive dissonance. Maybe a big employer in town is providing jobs but sickening workers; this is an incredibly hard situation to be in. Kerri Arsenault explores this complexity thoughtfully in Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. She grew up in a town in Maine with a thriving paper mill that once provided jobs for most townspeople and eventually polluted the environment and earned her hometown the nickname “Cancer Valley.” My dad worked in construction and put his faith in hard work. When he was sick, his attitude was one of overcoming. You used the word “victim,” and I struggled with that personally over the space of research and writing. There can be a lot of guilt and shame and discomfort in feeling wounded by place in this really physical, ancestral manner. At one point, I wondered, “How compromised am I?” and I didn’t know how to hold that guilt, that maybe I had also passed on these toxins to my own child—unwittingly, against my will. Reckoning with the idea that my body could harm future generations—I’d been learning about the load of environmental toxins stored in bodies and passed in breast milk—it was a moment of grief for me. Later, I was reading S. Lochlann Jain and their critique of the neoliberal “cancer survivor” trope, and something really clarified for me—which is that to accept individuality as at the heart of cancer fails to map culpabilities between extractive industry, illness, and displacements. Jain writes in Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us: “Framing survivorship as a personal accomplishment further separates cancer causation from its manifestations.” I agree. Seeing myself as potentially harmed by the sites has led me to a place of deeper honesty and personal agency. One question I return to in the book is: “Could there be something humbling and revolutionary in understanding myself as a site of contamination?”
Q: You use the term “ruin porn.” What do you mean by this?
A: Ruin porn is a term that implies a kind of imaginary limit, or fetishization. Superfunds are oftentimes abandoned. To me, ‘ruin porn’ means aesthetic curiosity for the physical. The term is a critique, critical of the viewer, and their aesthetic curiosity that centers their interpretation and response to the object, or the place, but with no interest in history, really, or the conditions that created the present. It’s extractive.
I write about Picher, Oklahoma, in Groundglass—a town in Northeastern Oklahoma, within the Tar Creek Superfund site, that has been described by various news outlets as a “ghost town.” The EPA and the state of Oklahoma evacuated Picher in 2009, because mining waste released too many harmful toxins into the environment; it wasn’t safe to live there.
The Quapaw Tribe leads much of the cleanup at the Tar Creek Superfund site, a lot of which is located on their sovereign tribal land. Tar Creek is not a ghost town because incredible tribal-led remediation efforts are happening there now. All U.S. land is Indigenous land, and to be talking about land violence and extraction is to be talking about forms of violence against Native and Indigenous people. BIPOC communities are disproportionately harmed by living in fenceline areas. As I was working on this book, it was important to me to be critical of myself and of the larger historic issues that contemporary ecological violence really stems from.
In my writing about environmental racism and classism, I was aware that as a white writer, my speaking was informed by privilege. I felt that this book would be thin and flawed and incomplete if it was only holding my experiences. Inspired by Elizabeth Rush’s excellent work of lyric journalism, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, I came to understand that it was important to me that my speech was operating alongside other voices and not in place of them. This book is partly my story, but it isn’t a work of memoir, because it is also a work of journalism and community testimony. There are more voices in this essay than my own.
Q: How do your identities as a daughter and as a mother inform your environmental consciousness?
A: When I was writing Groundglass, I was feeling a lot of guilt and complexity about what is it to parent in a time of climate catastrophe. It’s concerning to think about my child’s generation and future generations navigating the distress of these huge environmental changes and challenges. This idea of motherhood brings me to solastalgia, ecological grief tied to a past and a future. In many ways, I came to these questions through being a daughter and being close to my dad when he wasn’t well, so there’s a throughline of thinking about ancestry, even around ideas of silence and discussion. What was missing? What weren’t we talking about? We weren’t talking about climate grief. The grief of his death was tied to his cancer and was very familial in a way that many people experience.
Other writers shaped this book in many ways too, especially intersectional ecofeminist works I was reading. I continue to be profoundly inspired by Joyelle McSweeney’s scholarship on the necropastoral, which is an ecopoetics and art theory concerning biological principles of degradation, contamination, and decay; bell hook’s writing about place, community, and antiracism in Belonging: A Culture of Place; Max Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism. Elizabeth Hoover’s The River is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community, is an incredible work about grassroots activism to preserve Native culture and lands impacted by the violence of industrial colonialism along the St. Lawrence River.
Q: What do you hope that readers will take away from reading this book?
A: In this book, I’ve tried to deepen connections and go beyond witness. Writing it was, in part for me, an act of illuminating my own responsibility to our shared earth. At times, I was writing about my own complicity in ecological violence. I’ve learned so much from visual artist Tali Weinberg’s work, that uses weaving and sculpture to, in her own words: trace relationships between climate crisis, extraction, illness, and sense of place; between personal and communal loss; and between corporeal and ecological bodies. Because grief played such a large role in this book, in writing it, I’ve learned how powerful holding space for shared grief across identities and geographies can be. Maybe my hope is that readers are inspired to reflect on their own experiences of family and place, of loss and healing.
Lillie Gardner is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Quail Bell Magazine, Delmarva Review, Long River Review and more. She’s also an essays reader for Hippocampus Magazine and a contributor at Feminist Book Club.